Duct Structure is the Problem AND the Solution

Photo © Michelle McAulay, UC
Today I was fortunate enough to meet a cable laying crew and get a glimpse of what it is like to be at the coal-face of the broadband industry.

What struck me was the myth perpetuated by proponents of the NBN who pointed to the problems of the past where telegraph and telephone infrastructure were over-duplicated by competing firms.

Not much has changed today. Admittedly, the extent of duplication is not over-crowding the above-ground scenery as it may have in the past, but there is still plenty of duplication by private and government networks.

Given that cable-laying is considerably less labour-intensive than it was ten years ago (my knowledgeable companions explained how, using modern equipment, a crew of 3 to 4 workers today can do the work that 10 to 12 workers did ten years ago), the civil works - digging the trenches and laying duct - is the biggest cost factor, especially as the distance increases.
[A] high proportion of costs in [a new build] scenario that are due to Civil Works – 87% and 89% in the urban and suburban geotypes respectively. Duct sharing therefore presents a significant opportunity to reduce industry-level costs versus duplicative new build construction (CSMG 2010: 52).
In the UK, BT's Openreach appears to be addressing the issue of  sharing duct structure as an efficiency measure. Nonetheless, broadbanding Australia is a considerably bigger task than broadbanding the UK (which is only slightly bigger than Victoria).

Canada provides a better comparison, of course, but it has a long history of sharing infrastructure because of the cable television industry (CSMG 2010: 15). That is not to say that Canada has a fair and equitable history of infrastructure sharing, as facilities-based competition has shown. 

And while the CRTC has a mandate to ensure that communications providers, in particular incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), provide access to the duct structure, it has been proven that the CRTC does not to have jurisdiction over utilities infrastructure, even though this infrastructure could be used by municipalities to provide broadband services.

But given that the Australian industry has only really engaged in infrastructure sharing since the late 1990s (CSMG 2010: 11), getting access to the duct structure is still a relatively new game.

With all the attention focused on the NBN and its various arrangements to access Telstra's duct structure, a great deal of faith seems to be placed in NBN Co's ability to negotiate what is effectively a new idea in the sector. A simple solution appears to be the building of a comprehensive duct structure that encompasses all networks, including roads, rail and utilities.

Regrettably, the constitutional imperative forces the Commonwealth's hand every time, and we end up with control systems instead of communication systems. Nonetheless, the most obvious role for government is constructing and managing access to the duct structure and leaving businesses to connect the cables. With the NBN stalled yet again, we can't afford to ignore the obvious any longer.